The great philosopher had a pluralistic view and made puncturing scientific pretension into an art form. She spoke to Prospect a few weeks before her death, aged 99by James Garvey / October 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Just a few weeks before her death in October, Mary Midgley agreed to meet and discuss her new book, What Is Philosophy For? It seemed astonishing that someone about to celebrate her 99th birthday had a new book out, but I was less in awe of that than the reputation of one of the most important British philosophers of the 20th century and beyond.
People who have encountered Midgley often use the word “formidable” to describe her. Journalist Andrew Brown called her “the most frightening philosopher in the country: the one before whom it is least pleasant to appear a fool.” During my email correspondence with her to set up a date to talk about those philosophical problems “which are exercising both me and the public,” she worried that publications like the ones I write for “occasionally give rather half-witted answers to large questions of this kind.”
A lot of people were on the receiving end of her sharp intellect. She made puncturing scientific pretension into an art form—going after DNA discoverer Francis Crick for saying that human behavior can be explained simply by the interactions of brain cells, the physicist Lawrence Krauss for claiming that only science can solve philosophical problems, those theorists who insist we must look to machines for our salvation, and, most famously, Richard Dawkins for the idea that a gene could be selfish. In person, though, Midgley was kind, generous with her time and as engaged as ever with philosophical ideas—even if her voice was soft and she had a little trouble hearing me. She sat in an armchair, sipping tea, surrounded by books. Having just celebrated her approaching birthday with friends and family, she had a kitchen full of cakes.
One of her bibliographies lists nearly 300 books, articles, prefaces, interviews and podcasts. That’s all the more remarkable considering her late start—her first book appeared when she was in her late 50s. In the decades following, Midgley had a consistently solid swing at what she took to be glaring mistakes in a certain sort of orthodox, academic thinking about human nature, animals, morality, and science. “What makes me write books is being furious,” she said, laughing a little. “But,” Midgley added, “I think I’ve been furious about all the things I can be now.”
The positive side of her thinking was a defence of a kind of pluralism. Building on the legacy of the…